Two recent events focus increased international attention on Morocco. First, nine activists from Morocco’s February 20 pro-reform movement were granted bail at their appeal hearings this week. They had been jailed last month under charges of chanting anti-regime slogans and clashing with police during a protest. The activists had been arrested on April 6, while attending a mass rally in Casablanca called by the trade unions. The rally was called in protest to the austerity measures enacted by the government of Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane. The demonstrations were attended by some 10,000 people.
Second, for the first time ever, both chambers of parliament held hearings detailing the state of human rights in the country. Driss El Yazami, president of the National Council for Human Rights (CNDH), reported that while considerable progress has been made in recent years, the human rights situation in Morocco still has much room for improvement.
He cited the structural difficulties preventing the eradication of torture against detainees, and also noted the absence of legal provisions requiring immediate medical attention in cases of alleged abuse. Fines and prison sentences for schismatic journalists also constitute a violation of freedom of the press and expression, he said. The president of CNHD stressed that in order to allow the construction of an integrated national system for human rights, Morocco must go beyond simply strengthening the existing legal framework to provide constitutional guarantees.
The political situation in Morocco has been quite tense since the Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), won the majority in parliament back in 2011. Their victory saw King Mohammed VI appoint Benkirane as head of the new government. Despite the weakening they experienced with the collapse of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt and the withdrawal of a coalition partner, the PJD have managed to hang on to power. They have done so by avoiding any direct confrontation with the monarchy, a hard task considering the uneasy nature of their relationship. However, the political struggle has made it hard for the PJD to bring any real political change. This has resulted in something of a balancing act between an electorate eager for change, and an establishment eager to avoid it. The release of the activists can be seen to be a strategically timed move by the PJD, designed to perpetuate that delicate balance between opposing interests.
Pressures voiced by groups such as the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) have prodded the Moroccan government into taking the recent measures. International pressure also played an important role; but whether these timidly republican overtures will bring more or less social unrest is yet to be seen. For example, the release of the activists could potentially lead to more protests calling for the release of the many activists and journalists still detained in Morocco. These include the rapper/activist Lhaqed, an outspoken voice of the February 20 movement. The arrest of the musician has lead to the rise of the “Free Lhaqed” movement, a social movement that could trigger new protests.
Whatever the case, it is likely that events in Morocco will continue to be under the international spotlight for the next few weeks. This view is supported by the fact that, in the eyes of the west, human rights issues in Morocco are often confounded with a different set of human rights issues, in Western Sahara. Recently Spain has voiced its preoccupation with the condition of the Saharawi peoples living in the contested territory in the south. The coordinator of the Spanish parliamentary group for friendship with Western Sahara, Joan Nuet Pujals, paid a three days visit, along with other Spanish MPs, to Saharawi refugee camps.
The delegation concluded the visit by holding a meeting with the President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Mr. Mohamed Abdelaziz, and vowed that the government of Spain would act in favor of the right of the Saharawi people to self-determination. In addition, the outgoing United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, recently visited Morocco and the Western Sahara. During her visit, Pillay expressed concern over the slow pace of human rights reforms and deplored the ongoing use of torture in Western Sahara. Clearly, here too concerns are mounting, contributing to an increase in attention from the western media.
The tensions mounting in Morocco are a slow burning fire, and will not in the immediate term effect any particular class of economic assets. In addition, it should be noted that the government’s continued austerity program, while unpopular with Moroccans and largely at the root of the recent grievances, has been welcomed by international financiers and economists working at such bodies as the International Monetary Fund.